The Depiction of the Indian Subcontinent in 19th Century French Grand Opera

From my personal blog:

[Kabir’s note: A change of pace from the usual topics. As Zack says there is no need to be so confrontational all the time]

During the mid-nineteenth century, European composers experienced a vogue for depicting the Orient on stage.  Not only was the Orient an exotic location, but the operas set there spoke to the imperial anxieties of various European nations.  In their essay published in Imperialisms: Historical and Literary Investigations, Linda and Michael Hutcheon write: “Opera may not appear at first to be quite the same as these other Western means explored by [Edward] Said of ‘dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient’. But it is important to recall that Opera was a powerful discursive practice in nineteenth century Europe, one that created, by repetition, national stereotypes that, we argue, are used to appropriate culturally what France could not always conquer militarily” (Hutcheon 204).

In this paper, I will analyze two French Grand Operas from this period—George Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (1863) and Leo Delibes’s Lakme (1883)—in order to determine the stereotype of the “Oriental” that was being presented to French audiences.  As a point of contrast, I will also discuss Indrasabha (The Heavenly Court of Indra), an operatic drama written by the Urdu poet Agha Hasan Amanat and produced in 1855 in the palace courtyard of Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Oudh.  This contrast will serve to illuminate how the operatic tradition was adapted by Indians themselves as well as the differences in the narratives about the Orient as conceived by the Occident as opposed to the Orient itself.

The Pearl Fishers is set on the island of Ceylon—the modern nation of Sri Lanka.  The opera tells the story of of how two men’s vow of eternal friendship is threatened by their love for the same woman. This woman, in turn, faces a dilemma between secular love and her sacred oath as a priestess. The score is perhaps best known for “Au fond du temple saint”, the “friendship duet” for Tenor and Baritone.

In his essay “The Pearl Fishers and the Exotic”, musicologist Ross Hagen writes that “the orientalist musical language of Le desert, The Pearl Fishers, and similar works became essentially a catch-all signifier for any foreign culture full of danger, violence, superstition, taut tanned bodies and permissive sensuality.” He further argues that “the accompaniments of ‘exotic’ melodies often relied on drone pitches and fairly static rhythms as a way to lend a ‘primitive’ touch” (Utahopera.org).

Presenting such a work in the early twenty-first century has its challenges. As Hagen argues, the fact of globalization “doesn’t do these exoticist works any favors… Indian culture is also much less alien to an opera audience today than it would have been in nineteenth century Paris” (Utahopera.org).  He argues that presenting a period-faithful production in which a cast of white singers attempts to look “Indian” risks being perceived as an exercise in “brown-face”. However, setting the opera in a blank “postmodern” space seems dishonest. He concludes his article by noting that: “Regardless of the path taken by an individual production, it is useful to remember that The Pearl Fishers was designed to appeal to the imaginations, prejudices, and preconceptions of a nineteenth century Parisian audience. Acknowledging the desires of the original audience perhaps creates a measure of critical distance and allows the audience to appreciate the opera without denying its place in the lineup of vaguely colonialist and patronizing works from the time period” (Utahopera.org).  As John Mackenzie notes in his book Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts: “Again perhaps, it might be possible to see the central plot conceit of a sacred virgin yielding to love as somehow parallel to the seductions of European imperialism, but it was a favorite Romantic theme and in the opera it takes place purely within a Ceylonese context” (Mackenzie 151).  Thus, it is debatable whether simply setting a work in a foreign culture such as Sri Lanka makes the opera inherently colonialist.

Unlike The Pearl Fishers— in which all the characters are Sri Lankan–Delibes’s Lakme revolves around the romance between Gerald, a soldier serving in British India, and the Hindu priestess, Lakme. As Mackenzie states: “Here a British officer loves an Indian woman who sacrifices herself to save him. The imperial interpretation is obvious: the indigenous woman as sacrificial victim for the greater good of the civilizing mission, though the theme of cross-racial love is movingly portrayed in the music” (Mackenzie 151).  In their own discussion of Lakme, Linda and Michael Hutcheon note that: “By the time of Lakme, the French and the British, on the other hand, had been fighting each other militarily over India and other overseas territories for more than a century… it is as if the French were seeking ways to explore other aspects of imperialism by means of the safety afforded by distance and displacement” (205).

The Hutcheons note that Gerald infantilizes Lakme. He calls her a child and believes his fellow officer when he assures him that he can leave the Hindu priestess with impunity because “These children don’t know how to suffer”. They write: “In the discourse of French imperialism, ‘peuples enfants’ was a common positive term for the colonized—seen as simple, capricious but capable of devotion and loyalty” (209).  They cite Raoul Girardet’s argument that  in the 1870s, France developed “a moral, economic and political doctrine and discourse of imperialism… Perhaps by contemplating the difficult situation of the imperial British in India, French audiences could consider, with greater distance, the tensions involved in their own colonial efforts somewhat more easily” (210).

Another important point made by the Hutcheons is that in these operas it is the men who act violently to protect their religion “but it is the women who articulate the immensity of the religious and cultural differences”. This connects with the general Romantic fascination with the femme fatale.  Lakme commits suicide for the love of a European man.  The Hutcheons cite Binita Metha’s argument in Widows, Pariahs and Bayaderes: India as Spectacle that “the sacrifice of the (subject) woman is the formulation upon which the colonial (male) ideology of temptation and duty are resolved” (211).

You can read more here

 

Shujaat Bukhari, Editor of ‘Rising Kashmir’, Shot Dead in Srinagar

From TheWire.in

[Kabir’s Note: This is extremely tragic. We don’t know who the gunmen were. But this is an attack on freedom of expression and a great loss to Kashmir’s media fraternity]

New Delhi: Veteran journalist Shujaat Bukhari, editor-in-chief of the Srinagar-based newspaper Rising Kashmir, was shot dead on Thursday by unknown assailants.

Two personal security officers were also critically injured in the attack that took place in Srinagar’s Press Colony. While one succumbed to his injuries, the other is battling for his life at SKIMS hospital. According to local reports, the journalist “received multiple bullets in the head and abdomen”.

None of the terrorist groups active in the Valley have so far claimed responsibility. The last time a journalist was killed in Kashmir was over a decade ago. Srinagar itself saw killings in 2003, when Parvaz Muhammad Sultan, a reporter for a local news agency, was shot dead by gunmen in his office, and August 2000, when a bomb blast killed Pradeep Bhatia, a photographer with the Hindustan Times.

It is possible that Bukhari’s assassination is also linked to efforts by terrorist groups to disrupt the ceasefire Delhi has declared for the month of Ramzan. Last week, Bukhari wrote an article welcoming the ceasefire and expressing the hope that it could break the cycle of violence.

Bukhari, who had been based in Srinagar, had been running the Rising Kashmir for a little over a decade. Coming from an illustrious family of Kashmir – with a journalist as father,  his elder brother Syed Basharat Bukhari serving as law minister in the Mehbooba Mufti government and another a government servant – Shujaat was one of the most respected names in Indian journalism.

Prior to launching his own newspaper, he was bureau chief of The Hindu in Srinagar for nearly 15 years. Widely travelled, Bukhari used to write in Kashmiri and Urdu as well as English. He was also the president of Adbee Markaz Kamraz, the biggest and oldest cultural and literary organisation of the Valley.

A voice of reason and sanity, Bukhari did not flinch from highlighting human rights abuses and consistently advocated dialogue as the way for resolution of Kashmir’s problems.

 

 

Pranab Mukherjee’s Not-so-Secular History Lesson

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee in The Wire. in

https://thewire.in/politics/pranab-mukherjee-not-so-secular-history-lesson-rss-meet

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee ” teaches poetry at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. He is a frequent contributor to The Wire and has written for The Hindu, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Outlook and other publications.”

[Kabir’s Note: It is not my intention to troll or to start a fight. I simply think this is a very interesting perspective on Pranab Da’s visit to the RSS, which is the ideological enemy of the Indian National Congress.  What are the implications and why did Pranab Da do this?]

After paying tribute to K.B. Hedgewar’s memorial, where he called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh founder, a “great son of mother India”, former president Pranab Mukherjee waited for his turn to speak at the RSS event he was invited to.

It was a political endorsement that made a clear shift in its ideological grounds, because Jawaharlal Nehru and Hedgewar, like God and Mammon, are irreconcilable.

As Mukherjee waited his turn, the audience was treated to a viewing of RSS drills and other physical skills. A training camp of men wielding sticks is a symbol of double-policing, of self and society. Bhagwat made his opening remarks, invoking national unity in pure Hindi, using Sanskrit shlokas to define the cultural boundary of that oneness. The terms ‘civilisation’ and ‘nation’ are collapsible for Bhagwat, along with a third, which was of primary concern: ‘Hindu Samaj’, or Hindu society. For religion, Bhagwat used a term, “prakrutik dharma”, a naturalist idea of religion or moral codes.

The equation cannot be missed: Nature=nation=dharma.

The nation is the crucial thread between nature and dharma. In other words, nation is a concept and a reality where both nature and dharma becomes political, or they need to be understood politically.

And:

But when Mukherjee reaches the 12th century, and enters the medieval period, there is a striking obliteration of political and cultural details. Mukherjee mentions nothing of the “Muslim invaders”, besides Babur defeating the Lodhi king in the First Battle of Panipat, and the Mughal rule lasting for three hundred years.

The student of Nehruvian history is suddenly, no longer interested in Nehru’s recollection of “Akbar, forgetful of his empire, seated holding converse and debate with the learned of all faiths”. Mukherjee not only does not mention Akbar, but also, given his interest in matters of culture and scholarship, he makes no mention of Dara Shikoh, the translation of the Upanishads, no word on medieval centres of learning, no Islamic art, literature or architecture, no Indo-Islamic civilisation.

He forgot, given his interest in chroniclers from distant lands, the Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battuta, whose description of the Hindu Kush is legendary.If the omissions were conscious (rational) it was bad enough, and if unconscious (ideological), much worse. But not only were the Muslims left out of the story. There was no Ranjit Singh or Guru Gobind Singh either. Some Hindus would have missed Shivaji and Rana Pratap. Medieval India saw multiple and complex formations of power struggles, and Mukherjee kept himself out of that mess. The neater the picture and history of great dynasties, the less it glorified “invaders”, the better. Mukherjee clearly parts ways with Nehru’s secular vision of India’s history. It is one thing to claim allegiance to Nehru and use the rhetoric of secularism. It is another to prove one’s secular idea of history. The details were starkly missing. 

Finally:

Mukherjee’s idea of India is primarily civilisational. He quotes a Tagore poem about civilisational unity, but missed the whole point of Tagore’s idea of civilisation. In Civilization and Progress, Tagore wrote: “The word ‘civilisation’ being a European word, we have hardly yet taken the trouble to find out its real meaning. For over a century we have accepted it, as we may accept a gift horse, with perfect trust, never caring to count its teeth”. If one counted the teeth of that term, one is bound to encounter a freewheeling Orientalism in the Hindu ideas of the nation and civilisation, with a generous dose of Sanskritic wisdom as its cultural source. To acknowledge the debate with Buddhism would itself displace the centrality of Hindu philosophy.The civilisational narrative won’t remain secular if it discounts the exchanges between Hindu and Islamic scholars, and India’s rich Indo-Persian cultural tradition.

Quoting a shloka from Kautilya’s Arthashastra, “inscribed near lift No. 6 in the Parliament”, a memory he cherishes, Mukherjee tried to draw our attention to India’s poor happiness index in the world.

He translates the meaning of the shloka in English: “In the happiness of the people lies the happiness of the king, their welfare is his welfare.” He read it as a directive for the state to pay attention to poverty, disease, deprivation, encourage development, harmony, and of course, happiness. But happiness is not a statistical concern. Happiness is not a gross national product whose index had to be raised. There is no happiness in a nation that debars you from speaking the truth, that debars you from contradicting power, that debars you from eating, drinking, praying, loving, to your heart’s content. It is not just the mind that demands freedom, but also that much abused organ, the heart. Unlike Britain, a country that currently suffers from loneliness and needs a ministry for it, India does not need a ministry of happiness.

Mukherjee needs to introspect on something else: whether he is still a Nehruvian.

Pakistan’s attempts to secularise qawwali are unnecessary – it has always been pluralistic

By Hammad Khan in Scroll. in

[Kabir’s note: A nice change from geopolitics and caste]

One of the characteristics of the modern weltanschauung (worldview) is to identify religion as distinct from culture.

Islam, and Islam in Pakistan, doesn’t escape this bifurcation either. One popular example is qawwali.

The recent secularisation of qawwali – the shift away from Sufi dargahs to concert halls and recording labels – has led to a re-imagining of qawwali as expressive of the cultural traditions of Pakistan and (North) India, related only marginally and incidentally to the religion in whose cradle it developed.

Such a secular understanding of qawwali is anachronistic to the pre-modern progenitors of the art form.

The Chishti order, the most prominent Sufi brotherhood in Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan, has long celebrated the normativity of qawwali as an expression of divine love. Annemarie Schimmel has noted the phenomenon in the Mystical Dimensions of Islam as “the most widely known expression of mystical life in Islam.” American author Leonard Lewisohn, in his article “The Sacred Music of Islam: Sama in the Persian Sufi Tradition”, points out that qawwali is stressed upon by some South Asian Sufis not only as legally permissible (halal), but as a required religious practice (wajib).

Inherent religious pluralism

Qawwali also has a long history of engaging with multiple religious traditions. The religious landscape of North India and Pakistan provides a literary context of diverse religious motifs, metaphors and symbols.

Such a pluralistic approach is evident in a representative qawwali, Kanhayya (Krishna), composed by Nawab Sadiq Jung Bahadur Hilm and performed by Abu Muhammad and Fareed Ayaz. The qawwal sings of his love for Krishna and relates a heart-wrenching account of the afflictions he endures through separation with his beloved.

Kahuun kyaa tere bhuulne ke main vaarii
Kanhayya yaad hai kuch bhii hamaarii

What can I say, even for your neglect
I could give my life.
Do you remember me a little,
O’ my tormenting Kanhayya!

Radha-Krishna as the archetype of spiritual love is based on the 12th century lyrical epic, Gita Govinda (Love Song of the Dark Lord), composed by the saint-poet Shri Jayadeva of Bengal, and is considered a religious work in the Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism.

You can read the rest of the article at the link above.

Bhatkhande: The Contradictions of Music’s Modernity

I am excerpting this post from my personal blog. This semester,in my “Evolution of Music in South Asia” course, I gave 2.5 lectures on Chapter 3 of Professor Janaki Bahkle’s book Two Men and Music: Nationalism and the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition—  focusing on Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande.

In her book Two Men and Music: Nationalism and the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition(Oxford University Press 2005), Professor Janaki Bakhle extensively discusses Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande (1860-1936), a musicologist largely responsible for the standardization of Hindustani Classical Music. Bakhle describes Pandit Bhatkhande as “one of Indian music’s most contentious, arrogant, polemical, contradictory, troubled and troubling characters. It may be better to view him not as a charlatan or a savior, but as a tragic figure, one who was his own worst enemy. All through his writings, there is ample evidence of elitism, prejudice, and borderline misogyny” (99).  She goes on to note the irony that though Bhatkhande is revered as a great figure in Hindustani music, his vision for the art form is not being followed today. For example, Bhatkhande wanted to create a national tradition for Indian music, not necessarily a Hindu tradition.  Yet today, much of Hindustani Classical music is “suffused with sacrality” (99). Bakhle describes how at a recent musical gathering in Bombay, Bhatkhande’s portrait was adorned by a marigold garland with a silver incense stand placed in front of it.  She asks the crucial question: “How did it happen that a vision that began with scholastics, debate, and secularism culminated in garlands and incense?” (100).

Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande was born on August 10, 1860, into a Brahmin family in Bombay. Although neither of his parents was a professional musician, he and his siblings were taught music. This was not unusual in a family of his class background.  At age 15, Bhatkhande began receiving instruction in sitar and studying Sanskrit texts on music theory, a field of inquiry that would remain his obsession throughout his life.  In 1884, he joined the Gayan Uttejak Mandali, the music appreciation society, which exposed him to a rapidly expanding world of music performance and pedagogy. He studied with musicians such as Shri Raojibua Belbagkar and Ustad Ali Husain, learning a huge number of compositions, both khayal and dhrupad (100-101).

In 1887, Bhatkhande received his LLB from Bombay University and began a brief career as a criminal lawyer. After the death of his wife in 1900 and of his daughter in 1903, he abandoned this career to turn his full attention to music.  The first thing he did was to embark on a series of musical research tours, the first of which was conducted in 1896.  He traveled with a series of questions. His major project was to search out and then write a “connected history” of music and it began with these tours, which he believed would give him some clues to help recover some missing links.  He was less interested in the actual performance of music than in the theory that underpinned the education of the musician.  He kept several diaries of his tours, which served not only as an account of his travels but also as blueprints for his future writings.  Bakhle notes that he “did not interview the people he met so much as he interrogated them, seeking out what he judged to be their ignorance. In all these encounters Bhatkhande met only men. He had little regard for women musicians and did not believe he could learn anything from them” (103).

Bakhle describes several encounters that Bhatkhande had with various scholars of music. One that is particularly indicative of his attitude towards practicing musicians and to Muslims in general is the dialogue he had with Karamatullah Khan, a sarod player from Allahabad.  During this conversation, Khan argued that knowledge of Hindustani music did not come only from Sanskrit texts but also from those in Arabic and Persian. He also stated that it did not matter if the ragas had come to India from Persia or Arabia or gone from India to those countries.  This argument deeply upset Bhatkhande who was obsessed with finding a Sanskrit origin for an Indian national music. Bakhle  writes: “From the vantage point of the late twentieth century, Karamatullah Khan was voicing a prescient and progressive claim against national, ethnic and religious essentialism when it came to music. But Bhatkhande was looking for a ‘classical’ music that existed in his time not one that used to exist in ancient times” (112).  She goes on to note that Bhatkhande was “not unique among late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century nationalists in caring deeply about a classical and pure past… All nations ought to have a system of classical music” (113).

Bakhle argues that “Bhatkhande’s search for the origins of Indian music was not a simple Hindu nationalist search. He emphasized that music as it was currently being performed belonged to a different period, one that was constitutively modern and adequately different from previous periods so that any reliance on texts such as the Dharmashastras as a guide for everyday life was seen by him as romantic at best and anachronistic at worst. [He] rejected the idea that the claim for an unbroken history of music could be sustained merely by asserting that Hindustani music could reach back into antiquity, to the Sama Veda chants, as the origins of contemporary music. He also came to discover that music’s relationship to texts more than two hundred years old was difficult, if not impossible to prove” (115).  

More here

 

 

Indian Ink: Literary Insights into Colonialism and Identity

I am excerpting an article from my personal blog.

I originally wrote this essay in May 2009 and it was published on The South Asian Idea. It’s interesting to me how long I have been thinking about some of the same issues.  I have always been fascinated by the Raj.  In fact, in my Directing class as part of my Dramatic Literature major, I directed a scene from “Indian Ink”. This play has been with me throughout much of my life.

Flora: You are an Indian artist, aren’t you? Stick up for yourself. Why do you like everything English?

Das: I do not like everything English.

Flora: Yes, you do. You’re enthralled. Chelsea, Bloomsbury, Oliver Twist, Goldflake cigarettes, Winsor and Newton… even painting in oils, that’s not Indian. You’re trying to paint me from my point of view instead of yours—what you think is my point of view. You deserve the bloody Empire!

(Tom Stoppard, Indian Ink, pg. 43)

Great works of art often reveal insights about history in ways that are more accessible than academic historical accounts.  One work that was especially powerful in doing so for me is Tom Stoppard’s play Indian Ink. Ever since I first read this play some years ago, it has provoked me to think about the colonial experience in India as well as issues of identity and nationalism more generally.

In the tradition of Forster’s A Passage to India and Scott’s The Raj Quartet, Indian Ink examines the colonial experience through focusing on the relationship between one particular couple.   Set in two time periods (1930s India and 1980s England), the play tells the story of Flora Crewe, an English poet visiting India, and Nirad Das, an Indian artist who is painting her portrait.   Over the course of the play, Flora and Nirad’s relationship changes from a formal, distant one to a more intimate one. However, their relationship also reveals major points of tension and of culture clash.  Nirad constantly feels the need to impress Flora with his knowledge of England and of English culture, while Flora wants him to be himself. As the quote that I started this post with shows, she wants him to paint her from his own point of view.  He eventually does so, painting a nude portrait of her in the style of a Rajput miniature. Flora recognizes that he is working in his own tradition and has stopped trying to ape the English.  She tells him “This one is for yourself… I’m pleased. It has rasa” (74).

The play also makes interesting points about the reinterpretation of history, something that is a part of national and ethnic conflicts even today, both in South Asia and in other parts of the world. For example, in the modern portion of the play, Anish (Nirad’s son) and Mrs. Swan (Flora’s sister) discuss the events of 1857, which Anish refers to as “the first War of Independence” and Mrs. Swan insists on calling the Mutiny (17). History is written by the victors and later reinterpreted by various political groups to suit their own agendas. For example, in modern India, the BJP reinterprets the Mughals as a foreign occupying force, religiously motivated by their negative feelings towards Hinduism. Other historians argue that this perspective is not an appropriate way to view the Mughals, many of whom assimilated and became “Indian.” History remains a powerful force that can be used for various politically motivated ends. Stoppard’s play forces the audience to question the truth of any of these interpretations….

More here

 

 

W.H. Auden on Partition

Since on the “Brown Roundup” thread, there was some spirited discussion about baby Prince Louis and his being named after Lord Mountbatten, I was reminded of W.H. Auden’s poem “Partition”. It’s a short poem, so I’m just going to copy it out from my edition of Auden’s Collected Poems (Edited by Edward Mendelson).  The poem appears on pages 803- 804 of the volume.

Partition

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission

Having never set eyes on this land he was called to partition

Between two peoples fanatically at odds,

With their different diets and incompatible gods.

“Time,” they had briefed him in London, “is short. It’s too late

For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:

The only solution now lies in separation.

The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,

That the less you are seen in his company the better,

So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.

We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,

To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.”

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day

Patrolling the gardens to keep assassins away,

He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate

Of millions.  The maps at his disposal were out of date

And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,

But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect

Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,

And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,

But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,

A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he sailed for England, where he quickly forgot

The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,

Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

–May 1966

 

The poem speaks for itself.  The central character (never actually named in the poem itself)  is Sir Cyril Radcliffe.

A Golden Age: Literature and Nationalism

I am cross-posting my review of Tahmima Anam’s novel “A Golden Age” from my personal blog.  This review was originally published on The South Asian Idea in 2010.

She spoke, with fluency, the Urdu of the enemy. She was unable to pretend, as she saw so many others doing, that she could replace her mixed tongue with a pure Bengali one, so that the Muslim salutation, As-Salaam Alaikum, was replaced by the neutral Adaab, or even Nomoshkar, the Hindu greeting. Rehana’s tongue was too confused for these changes. She could not give up her love of Urdu, its lyrical lilts, its double meanings, its furrowed beat.

—Tahmima Anam, A Golden Age, pg. 47

Literature often yields insights into political events in ways that traditional historical accounts cannot. History tells us of war, rebellion, the process of state formation, but the medium’s strength does not lie in describing the complex human emotions that lie behind such events.

As a Pakistani-American, reading Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age, a novel set during the 1971 war between East and West Pakistan that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh, was an enlightening and somewhat disturbing experience. 1971 is rarely discussed in Pakistan, and when it is, it is always in the context of the “dismemberment” of the country and the treacherous role played by India in this process.  For decades, Pakistani history textbooks referred to Bengalis as traitors and the “enemy within” (a point discussed by the eminent Pakistani social scientist Rubina Saigol). We never discuss the reasons why the Eastern wing of the country wanted to declare independence. Neither do we critically assess our own role in this second Partition of the subcontinent.

Obviously, the historical narrative is very different in Bangladesh. There, 1971 is celebrated as a war of independence, leading up to the formation of a new state.  It is a victory against occupation and oppression, similar to the American Revolution or indeed of India’s winning of independence from the British.  In this version of the narrative, Pakistanis are seen as the villains and the Bengali freedom fighters as heroes.

While this is the basic narrative backdrop of A Golden Age, what makes the book worth reading is Anam’s complex psychological characterization, particularly of her protagonist Rehana Haque, a middle-aged widow and mother of two teenage children. Rehana is from Calcutta and is Urdu-speaking, having moved to Dhaka after her marriage.  She is a reluctant revolutionary, being drawn into the battle for Bangladeshi independence mostly against her will, through her two college-going children. It is through Rehana’s character and her ambiguous and divided feelings about the events around her that Anam expresses the complex personal ramifications of political events.

Language is a particularly powerful marker of identity and during times of conflict the language one speaks often takes on huge significance. Today sixty years after the Partition of India and the creation of Pakistan, there is still conflict over whether Hindi and Urdu are two registers of the same language or two completely distinct tongues.  In Pakistan, Urdu has become increasingly “Arabized” and “Persianized” while Hindi in India has became “Sanskritized”. Similarly during 1971, an individual’s decision to use Urdu or Bengali became a marker of his or her political position.  Urdu, Pakistan’s official language, was seen as the language of the occupier, while Bengali became a symbol for the distinct identity of “East Pakistanis” and their fight for their own state.  But what of people like Rehana, those who were Urdu-speaking Bengalis? In order to show loyalty to the national cause, they were expected to give up their language.

What effect does this dilemma have on the individual?  Anam depicts Rehana as a lover of Urdu poetry, especially of the Ghazal. Even her son, Sohail, who is politically very engaged with the Bengali cause, writes love letters to his girlfriend in which he extensively quotes Urdu poets.  When he leaves to join the resistance, one of the only books he takes with him is the Ghazals of Mirza Ghalib. Clearly then, even someone so politically committed to a free Bangladesh could not abandon his love of Urdu, the language of the “enemy.”

A Golden Age is a powerful story of a nation’s violent birth. More importantly, it is the story of the harrowing choices individuals are forced to make in times of conflict. Which comes first, one’s ethnicity, language, or nationality?  Reading this book has caused me to continue to ponder the fascinating questions of identity, both national and personal.

Revisiting Somnath–A Review

I am cross-posting my book review of Romila Thapar’s Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History (Verso 2005). This review was originally published on The South Asian Idea in July 2014.   I am re-posting it here because BP readers clearly have a deep interest in ancient “Indian” (or South Asian) history.

In 1026, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni raided the Hindu temple of Somnath (located in the present-day Indian state of Gujarat).  In retrospect, this event has had tremendous repercussions for contemporary South Asian history and is traditionally regarded as marking Hindu-Muslim animosity in the region from the outset. To this day, perceptions of Mahmud continue to be polarizing. While many Indians regard him as an iconoclastic invader bent upon loot and plunder, their counterparts in Pakistan view him as a conqueror who “established the standard of Islam on heathen land.” The Pakistani attitude is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that the country’s military has named the Ghaznavi missile in honor of Mahmud.  However, despite this conventional understanding, modern historians are attempting to question the received wisdom surrounding Somnath.

One of the modern scholars attempting to arrive at a new understanding of Somnath is Romila Thapar, considered among India’s most eminent historians. In her book Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History (Verso 2005), Thapar argues that the dominant view that Mahmud’s raid caused great psychological trauma to the Hindu community is largely a colonial construction that gained prominence during the British Raj. She goes beyond the Turko-Persian histories favored by colonial historians to examine contemporaneous Sanskrit inscriptions, biographies of kings and merchants, and popular narratives. Studying these sources complicates the traditional view, posing important questions about how one version of the event became hegemonic.

Colonial historians divided Indian history into three periods: Hindu, Muslim, and British.  Study of the “Hindu” period focused on Sanskrit sources while study of the “Muslim” period focused on Persian texts. According to Thapar, this classification scheme was illogical and led to a piecemeal history in which links and connections could not be made. It also discouraged comparative analysis of different sources and an examination of the contradictions and interconnections between them.  In the case of Somnath, historians focused on the Persian sources to the exclusion of others, never inquiring why the event is seldom referenced in the Sanskrit temple inscriptions. In addition, the Persian texts were read at face value, discounting their internal contradictions. Various texts assigned Mahmud different motivations with some emphasizing his religious zeal and others focusing on his interest in plunder.

The dominance of the conventional view of Somnath can also be explained by the retrospective need to justify the 1947 Partition of British India into two nation-states: India and Pakistan. This was justified by claiming that, since the arrival of Islam, the Hindu and Muslim communities had been two distinct “nations” that were largely antagonistic to each other. In this view, the raid on Somnath became “a foundational event that created hostility between Hindus and Muslims since the raid could neither be forgiven nor forgotten” (Thapar 12). Post-independence, the conventional view of the event has become central to Hindutva politics. Thapar notes that the 1990 rath yatra that preceded the destruction of the Babri Masjid began at Somnath. The destruction of the mosque itself was seen as the Hindu reply to Mahmud’s iconoclasm. Thus, the received wisdom about Somnath served not only the aims of the British but continues to serve those of contemporary religious nationalism. Continue reading “Revisiting Somnath–A Review”

Madeeha Gauhar, Pakistan’s most famous Theatre Director passes away

It is a very sad day for Pakistan and for theater lovers in particular. Madeeha Gauhar, one of the country’s foremost directors and the wife of playwright Shahid Nadeem, has passed away after a three year battle with cancer. Gauhar and Nadeem were the forces behind Ajoka Theatre, whose  plays I have blogged about here:

Theater and Social Change in Pakistan: The Plays of Shahid Nadeem

Here is DAWN’s announcement of Gauhar’s passing:

Ajoka Theatre’s founder and Artistic Director Madeeha Gauhar has passed away in Lahore after a three-year battle with cancer, according to reports. She was 61.

The actor, director and activist was well known for her commitment to theatre for social change and promoting peace between Pakistan and India. She set up Ajoka theatre in 1984 and regularly collaborated with Indian artists.

Ajoka’s plays have addressed issues related to human rights, especially women’s issues such as female literacy, honour killings, rights of the girl child, health and family planning. Toba Tek Singh, Aik Thi Nani, Bulha, Letters to Uncle Sam, Mera Rang de Basanti Chola, Dara, Kon Hai Yay Ghustakh and Lo Phir Basant Ayee are among Ajoka’s most memorable plays. Ajoka has performed all over the world, including India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Oman, Iran, Egypt, Hong Kong, the US, UK and Norway.

She was the first Pakistani to get the prestigious Prince Claus Award for her leadership of Ajoka, which was praised by the organisers of the Dutch prize for “[withstanding] pressures from the political and religious establishment, and [remaining] committed to the cause of theatre for social change.” She was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize from Pakistan in 2005.

She is survived by her husband, veteran writer and director Shahid Nadeem and two sons, Sarang and Nirvaan.